Arkansas voters to elect representative of state’s first Hispanic-majority district
Three candidates are seeking to represent House District 9, Arkansas’ first Hispanic-majority district. They are, from left: Democrat Diana Gonzales Worthen, Republican DeAnna Hodges and Libertarian Steven Stilling. (Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office)
Voters in Arkansas’ new majority-Hispanic district will elect a state representative for the first time this November.
Democrat Diana Gonzales Worthen, Republican DeAnna Hodges and Libertarian Steven Stilling are the three candidates seeking to serve the diverse population of Springdale’s House District 9.
Having worked in Northwest Arkansas as an educator for 26 years, Gonzales Worthen said she has connections within several communities and organizations and is not afraid to ask questions to find the resources needed to serve her constituents.
As the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Gonzales Worthen said she can connect with the district’s residents as a bilingual and bicultural candidate.
“Representation matters at the state Capitol,” she said. “Just the mere fact of having a similar background to the majority of the constituents does mean a lot, and they’re excited about that.”
If elected, Gonzales Worthen would be the first Latina to serve in the Arkansas Legislature. This is her third time seeking a seat in the General Assembly. She had unsuccessful bids for the Arkansas House in 2006 and the Arkansas Senate in 2012.
Stilling has lived in Springdale for five years and is seeking public office for the first time. The retired Army sergeant said he was trained to ignore race and diversity in the military, and said that’s probably how he would handle serving Springdale’s diverse community as an elected official.
“You just treat everybody as the same, then you never have to worry about poor treatment of one person and better treatment of another person,” he said.
Stilling said people need to recognize the country is a melting pot, a diverse community where the rights and freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution should be applied to everyone.
“We need to make sure that people that are immigrating to the United States are covered under those rights and that they understand those rights,” he said.
Hodges, who described herself as a Christian conservative on her campaign website, previously served as the Howard County Republican chairman and as the county’s election commissioner. She moved to Springdale 20 years ago.
Hodges did not respond to interview requests via phone, text or social media for this story.
District 9 was created during the 2021 redistricting process. Following the U.S. Census each decade, officials are required to redraw boundaries for the state’s 100 House and 35 Senate districts to meet various legal criteria, such as having about the same population size.
The governor, attorney general and secretary of state comprise the Arkansas Board of Apportionment, which gives final approval to the new boundaries. Proposed districts were first presented in October 2021.
Following public feedback, officials adjusted District 9’s preliminary boundaries so the new district would have a majority of voting-age Hispanic residents, not just a majority of Hispanic residents. Those plans were approved by the board last November.
The Arkansas House now has 12 majority-minority districts — one Hispanic-majority district and 11 African American-majority districts. That’s one more than the 11 majority-minority districts approved during the 2011 redistricting process. The number of majority-minority districts in the Senate remains at four.
There are 30,625 residents in District 9 and 16,625 are Hispanic, according to redistricting data. Of the district’s total population, 20,046 residents are voting age.
There are 9,687 registered voters in the new Hispanic-majority House District, according to data obtained from the Secretary of State’s office on Oct. 19. Race and gender are not included on the voter registration application or in the voter database, according to a secretary of state spokesperson.
District 9 was created from the former District 89. The new boundaries have been extended to Don Tyson Parkway on the south and Sonora Rd. on the east. The western border has been pushed back to Thompson St. and runs diagonally along the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad tracks northward toward the Benton-Washington County border, cutting out much of downtown Springdale.
Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) was first elected as District 89’s representative in 2018. When the Board of Apportionment approved new maps in 2021, she announced in a social media post that she would not seek re-election.
“The partisan and divisive map, finalized today, leaves me in a new district that stretches up into Benton County,” Godfrey wrote. “That district deserves a different representative who can be a strong advocate for that community and its values, just as I have been a strong advocate for downtown and east Springdale.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson praised the creation of the new Hispanic-majority district during last year’s redistricting process.
“This is historic in nature in terms of access and making sure that we can continue equal access by all populations in our state,” Hutchinson said at the time.
Springdale has the largest public school district in the state, but Gonzales Worthen said the diversity of its teacher population doesn’t match that of its student population.
Nearly 48% of Springdale students are Hispanic or Latino and 13.5% are Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. Of the district’s nearly 1,500 certified teachers, 64 are Hispanic and two are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or 4% and 0.1%, respectively.
Gonzales Worthen wants to use “Grow Your Own” programs to develop teachers already living in the community to serve this multicultural population. As director of Project REACH (Retooling Educators and Paraprofessionals to ACHieve Teacher Credentialing) at the University of Arkansas, she works to certify bilingual teachers. The program has a “Grow Your Own” initiative targeting bilingual and bicultural paraprofessionals in the Springdale school district.
Gonzales Worthen’s father was an English learner and her mother was a migrant farm worker. As a teacher, Gonzales Worthen said she’s met immigrant students who reminded her of the hardships her parents faced and she didn’t want them to face the same struggles.
“We have a chance here to break that cycle and to try to make things better for our students and their families,” she said. “So that’s what got me started in terms of this work — just ensuring that all families have access to education, and have access to higher education, to affordable health care, and mental health services, and then also quality jobs.”
Language can sometimes be a barrier to accessing these services. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, unveiled disparities among Springdale’s communities of color, particularly when it came to accessing information about the virus in their native language, Gonzales Worthen said.
“Everybody needs to have access to those services, no matter what language they speak,” she said. “They’re all human beings and they’re all Arkansans, so we need to do what we can to alleviate that.”
Additionally, Gonzales Worthen wants to increase teacher’s salaries as well as the number of pre-K classrooms.
Gonzales Worthen said she wants all families to have a good life and will continue working hard and advocating on their behalf.
“We’re all here for a good quality of life, good education, good health care for our kids and our families, and just want to keep that moving forward,” she said.
Stilling agreed with his opponent that teacher’s salaries’ should be increased and said starting educators at the same base salaries as state representatives – $44,357 — would be the fairest thing to do. Legislators also receive per diem when at the Capitol on business: $59 a day for those living within 50 miles of the Capitol and $159 a day for those residing more than 50 miles away.
“They should be paid as much as we are,” he said. “They’re valuable government employees, but then where does it end? Do we give everybody a raise across the board? How do we pay for that?”
Stilling supports Issue 4, which would legalize recreational marijuana for adult use in Arkansas.
Stilling’s also in favor of reducing the number of laws that exist because there are redundancies in what’s become a complicated system, he said.
“How can a regular person be expected to know what’s in countless law books?” he asked. “The system’s just not set up fair for that anymore. So we need to get rid of as many laws as we can that just don’t need to be on the books anymore.”
Stilling said he decided to run for office because he doesn’t like the way the country is going and instead of complaining, he wanted to try and change things.
While he may not win, Stilling said he wants to put some ideas out in the world, even if it’s just the idea of considering a third party candidate. Having a third party can help keep Democrats and Republicans in check, he said.
Stilling described himself as “the common man” and said that’s why people should vote for him.
“That’s what our country was looking for is common citizens that have common sense to run their government for them,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be a job, it’s supposed to be service. You’re not supposed to make a fortune off of it. You’re supposed to help people.”
Growing up in her family’s jewelry business, Hodges witnessed the challenges of owning a small business firsthand, according to her campaign website. After the COVID-19 pandemic, Hodges said it’s “more important to keep government bureaucracy out of the way of small businesses.”
“Red tape, regulations and mandates are making it difficult to grow a small business,” she said on her website. “I will stand up for small businesses that create jobs and support infrastructure to promote economic growth.”
Hodges said she would stand up for small businesses that create jobs and support infrastructure to promote economic growth.
In terms of education, Hodges said she believes all Arkansas children deserve the best education possible whether students attend a public school, charter school, private school or they’re homeschooled. She also said she’s “opposed to Critical Race Theory and left-wing ideology” in schools.
In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hodges said no matter their ethnic origin, District 9’s residents want the American dream and are working to build their own lives.
“I feel I can represent every person in Springdale,” Hodges told the newspaper. “I can give them a chance to prosper, the freedom to prosper. This is a hardworking community that wants to keep more of their money in their pockets.”
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